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A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity

A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity

By Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald. With Janet Tulloch. Pp. vi + 345, figs. 23. Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2006. $20. ISBN 0-8006-3777-1 (paper).

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This study sets out to reconstruct and analyze the lives of early Christian women in relation to house churches within the first centuries of Christianity. Using literary sources from the New Testament and early Christian writers (e.g., Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine) to non-Christian authors (e.g., Philo, Plutarch, Dio Cassius), Osiek and MacDonald endeavor to access and flesh out Christian women’s everyday experiences within the Roman context and relate these to questions of leadership and authority in the formative church. Tulloch, the third author, who contributes chapter 8, places the literary evidence into conversation with material culture—specifically fresco scenes of women in funerary rituals on catacomb walls—and argues that the iconographical evidence also points to early Christian women in leadership roles.

The authors not only perform close readings of ancient sources but also engage recent feminist discourse by carefully arranging their discussion along a number of methodological axes. First, they single out for reconsideration three polarities that have permeated scholarship on early Christian women: patriarchy vs. discipleship of equals, public vs. private, and ascetic vs. domestic lifestyle. Second, they establish three “assumptions” that guide their analysis: (1) that evidence of masculine plural titles does not automatically exclude women, (2) that anthropological readings of honor and shame need to differentiate cultures and places, and (3) that women participated in all the activities of the house church, which was the center for worship, hospitality, patronage, education, communication, social services, evangelization, and missionary action (6). Finally, the authors address a range of topics devoted to women and agency, specifically women as wives, women as slaves, mothers giving birth and caring for infants, and women as leaders of Christian assemblies, funerary banquets, and house churches.

The volume’s strength rests in its ability to tease out—from fragmentary sources—a tableau vivant of women’s varied experiences, reanimating for the modern reader the tangible context of women in the early Christian household. To accomplish this, the authors make a number of strategic moves in their selection and treatment of texts; they decipher more than the “dutiful wife inscribed in the Ephesian household code” of Ephesians 5:22–33 (245) and move beyond the focus on “the exceptional” in textual history (Phoebe, Thecla, Perpetua) to foreground “the ordinary” (246). The book brings a wealth of information and refreshing perspectives to an audience of historians of religion, New Testament scholars, art and archaeological historians, and those working in gender studies. Where the volume leaves this reader disappointed is its treatment of (what the title calls) “place” and “house churches.” It is not clear in what actual loci the authors are situating their discussion, nor is there a critical or in-depth discussion of what we know about house churches and how we extract that information from archaeological and literary sources.

For the archaeologically oriented reader, Tulloch’s chapter on funerary banquets and material remains provides the most interest. Tulloch makes a significant contribution by grounding the volume’s literary discussion in an iconographical inquiry of the enigmatic third- to fourth-century catacomb paintings from Marcellino and Pietro in Rome. Eight different banquet scenes (one of which adorns the cover of the book) portray figures—many of them female—raising cups at meals and sitting alongside others at sigma-shaped tables. Accompanying these scenes are painted terms such as agape (love) and irene (peace).

Tulloch does an admirable job of critically questioning the identity of these female representations, reviewing a range of theories that interpret them as personifications of Christian values (love and peace), as real people (possibly servants in a wealthy Christian household), or as painterly devices that serve as visual bookends to the depicted scenes. Using a “visual studies” approach that foregrounds the “interplay between text and image” (176), Tulloch examines actual tables found in funerary settings, other Roman kline or couch scenes, and artifacts—cups and mixing vessels—inscribed with terminology similar to that which appears on these walls. She offers a three-fold contention that “the figures in the banquet scene represent real people or a typology of real people who once lived and were in some way connected to those buried in the underground household chambers in Marcellino and Pietro and its early Christian community,” that the figures are “female family members who were heads of influential households,” and finally that the terms agape and irene “form part of a funerary toast said with wine” (166). This last claim of a responsive speech pattern between host and guest is a fascinating one that Tulloch bases on the separate appearance of the words on walls and on different drinking vessels. This reader would find it more convincing if there were literary evidence to support the claim, and the chapter would be enhanced with an acknowledgment and discussion of these very terms appearing in other early Christian sources outside of a funerary context, such as communal meals. The work of Andrew McGowan and others might be of value here in this regard.

We return then to the larger dilemma posed by the book, specifically what is the relationship between what women are doing “at home” or at “funerary meals” and what women are doing in “house churches”—a construct still in need of critical explanation. Are the realms really the same, or can we transfer an activity from one realm to the other? Tulloch explains that because funerary management was a private activity for Christians and Romans, there was no need for “institutionalized rites” with the presence of a priest, and therefore “the path was clear for women to act as leaders in private funerary ceremonies and the commemoration rites after burial” (172). But does the opposition set up here, between private family funerals and institutionalized religious rites, not underscore the differences between the funerary setting and house church? In conclusion, the volume may not illuminate all the complexities, but the authors do succeed at “re-creating the domestic atmosphere of house churches” (247).

Joan R. Branham
Department of Art and Art History
Providence College
Providence, Rhode Island 02918

Book Review of A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity, by Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald

Reviewed by Joan R. Branham

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 2 (April 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1122.Branham

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